The Indiana Pacers proved they have what it takes to hang with the NBA’s elite on Wednesday night as they faced the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Playoffs. But an ill-fated decision by Pacers coach Frank Vogel to take Roy Hibbert out of the game allowed LeBron James to beat Paul George on a wide-open layup as the buzzer sounded at American Airlines Arena, giving Miami a 103-102 victory.
It is a decision that should haunt Vogel, at least until Friday when they meet again in Miami. Roy Hibbert said, “I think as I get older, I may have to [ask to stay in]. I didn’t, and in hindsight I wish I did because LeBron’s layup was one I think I could’ve [blocked], because he served it up.”
Paul George, who played lights-out in regulation with a clutch 3-pointer and 3 free throws in overtime just took a bad angle on James; it was really that simple. It was a simple mistake, that at any other time, would have been just another stat. But in overtime, with the game on the line and the ball in LeBron James’ hands, it proved to be a crucial moment in the series.
The numbers will show that James played a total of 47 minutes in Game 1. In the 38 minutes he played with Hibbert on the floor, he took just 3 shots close to the rim. In the 9 minutes he played with Hibbert on the bench, James made 4 of 6 shots.
“[Hibbert] does an amazing job of protecting the rim,” George said. “I’m 100 percent sure he would’ve been there.”
While the Pacers players no doubt had to resist the urge to question their coach, you just know they can’t forget the “Melo play,” a reference to the clutch play Roy Hibbert made to deny Carmelo Anthony in the fourth-quarter of the last game with the Knicks. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was an exclamation point at the end of a sentence that reads, “Not on Roy Hibbert’s watch.” It was a defining moment, frozen in photographic time. That was how Wednesday night was supposed to end. But instead, Pacers fans have a last-second image of LeBron James to dwell on.
But it’s not as if Vogel didn’t have a reason to bench Hibbert. He was concerned that Bosh might get open for a jumper, and that Hibbert would be to slow to stop it. The Pacers must find a way to be effective in situations like this. Hibbert is a 7-foot-2 centerpiece of a Pacers defense that was arguably the league’s best. But is he the ideal option when faced with someone who can shoot 3-pointers?
Coach Vogel thought this might be a problem for maybe a quarter of the game, when Bosh plays center and Hibbert can’t cover players up close to the basket, like Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem. The thing is, this will likely continue to be an issue for the remainder of the series, particularly in toward the end of each game.
This is part of the reason the Heat is so hard to defend. It’s their capability to spread the floor. Or, as Hibbert explained, “If LeBron drives one or two steps, I think he has a chance at the basket, so I come over and then dishes to Chris Bosh, who has been torching us from the perimeter the last three or four games we played them. Coach’s mindset was everybody play everyone 1-on-1. They could’ve scored even if I was in there. Or I could’ve blocked it.”
Interestingly, when Vogel was asked how many times he has tried to “match down” by utilizing a smaller lineup to match an opponent’s quickness and 3-point shooting prowess he responded, “Zero.” Hmmm. Count Game 1 as a first then.
As Hibbert has said, even if Vogel had left him in the game, it is entirely possibly that James would have simply passed the ball to Bosh for a quick, game-winning jumper.
But regardless of whether it was the right decision, it brings to the forefront the dilemma in which the Pacers find themselves. In situations such as these, they must decide whether they can afford to bench their biggest defensive weapon in Hibbert and lose his ability to defend the high-value area close to the hoop, or leave him in a run the risk of getting burned by Bosh or Battier on 3-pointers and open jumpers. Or leave
It will be interesting to see who makes it to the finals. By now, one thing is for sure: If any team has the ability to hang with the Heat it is the Pacers. It is easy to imagine each and every game coming down to the final possession. Have the Pacers learned a valuable lesson from Game 1? Or will the Heat—pardon the pun—get hot and take the series from here?
Like the Colts versus Patriots, the Pacers can ill-afford to give the Heat any breaks. LeBron is to the Heat as Tom Brady is to the Patriots. Look away for even an instant and he can burn you.
“To tell you the truth, I cannot wait to play the next one,” Hibbert said. “It’s a physical series, and we’re going to be go punch-for-punch, blow-for-blow, and this is fun to me.” Even more fun when you win.
The Pacers will play Game 2 in Miami, followed by consecutive home games at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.